Located a little farther from Historic Downtown Charleston at 48 Elizabeth Street, sits the impressive Aiken-Rhett House
, constructed in 1820, renovated with additions in 1833 and 1858; later conserved by the Historic Charleston Foundation in 1995. Elizabeth Street was named for Elizabeth Wragg (1736-1773), daughter of Joseph Wragg, and was one of the original streets of Wraggborough. Elizabeth Wragg married Peter Manigault and was the mother of the architect Gabriel Manigault.
Built by merchant and real estate investor John Robinson, this three-story brick, 23-room mansion is known today as the Aiken-Rhett House. Open for visitors, you will enjoy the audio self-guided tour as it allows you to take your time and decide which rooms you’d like to see first. If you need to stop and pause the audio, no problem. Or, if you wish to start outside in the yard and then work your way inside, as I did, you can find the locators quite easily and skip around.
A typical Charleston double house, the building consisted of a central hallway with two rooms on either side. The front door was located on the Judith Street side of the house, where the piazza is now located, with a grand stairway. Robinson lived here for about eight years. When he lost five ships at sea in 1825, he was forced to sell the house to meet his debts.
Robinson sold the house to one of his old friends, William Aiken Sr. in 1827 to settle his financial obligations. Aiken, an Irish immigrant who accumulated a large fortune as one of Charleston’s leading merchants and lived at 456 King Street
, use the house as a rental property. A 19th century newspaper advertisement described the house as featuring “twelve upright rooms, four on each floor, all well finished, the material of the piazzas and fences all of cypress and cedar; underneath the house are large cellars and storerooms.” When William Aiken suddenly died in a carriage accident, his vast holdings were divided between his wife, Henrietta Wyatt, and his only son, William Aiken, Jr.
In 1833, young William Aiken, Jr. and his new bride, Harriet Lowndes, decided to make the house their primary residence and began an extensive renovation of the property. There were three huge improvements: the front door was moved to the Elizabeth Street side, the first floor was completely reconfigured, and a large addition was added to the east side of the house. At the time, the couple made the home one of the most impressive residences in Charleston.
A successful businessman, rice planter and politician, William Aiken, Jr. was one of South Carolina’s richest citizens. The Aikens owned a great deal of property, including Jehossee Island
on Edisto Island, and was one of the state’s largest slaveholders. He served as governor of South Carolina in 1844-86 and a U.S. Congressman, 1851-57.
Some of the best preserved slave quarters in the Southeast are extant at the Aiken-Rhett House providing a vivid record of slave life in an urban antebellum household. Slaves worked and lived in the back lot. The two largest buildings were the stable and carriage house and the kitchen and the laundry building. The enslaved residents probably took their meals communally in the kitchen. They slept in rooms arranged dormitory style above the kitchen and stable. Many of the rooms had fireplaces and paint evidence suggest that the rooms were painted vibrant colors. The Gothic Revival facades added to the buildings illustrate an attempt to put the best possible face on urban slavery.
Following a well-preserved tradition among Charleston’s elite, Governor and Mrs. Aiken traveled in Europe and returned with magnificent fine art. The Gallery is without a doubt, my favorite part of the house! Many of these objects can be seen in the same room for which they were purchased. A second renovation at the Aiken-Rhett House took place in 1857, when the house’s interior was redecorated and an art gallery was built to house the collections acquired by the Aikens during their Grant Tour in Europe.
Aiken considered himself a Unionist during the outbreak of the Civil War, though he threw his support in with his southern countrymen once the war began. In November 1863, Jefferson Davis visited Charleston for the only time during the Civil War and stayed a week as the Aikens’ guest. General P.G.T. Beauregard moved his headquarters to the house, which was out of reach of the heavy Federal bombardment of Charleston, in December of the same year.
In 1865, Charleston fell to the advancing Union armies. The house was looted, and Governor Aiken was arrested and taken to Washington to await trial. He was later released following the intervention of several prominent Northern political leaders whom he had befriended while a member of Congress.
William Aiken, Jr. died at his summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, in 1887. He left his property to his wife and daughter. Harriet Aiken continued to live in the house until her death in 1892. Her daughter, Henrietta, and son-in-law, Major A.B. Rhett, raised their four daughters and one son in the house. Upon Henrietta’s death, the house was divided among her children. Two sons, I’On Rhett and Andrew Burnet Rhett, Jr. continued to live in the house, though they made minimal alterations to the property until the 20th century.
In 1949, I’On Rhett and his wife, Frances Hinson Dill, purchased the interests of the other heirs. Mrs. Rhett donated the property to The Charleston Museum in 1975. The Charleston Museum owned the house until 1995, when Historic Charleston Foundation purchased it. An extensive restoration of the house’s exterior envelope was completed in 2009, when it was lime washed to its original bright color Restoration contractors devised a new state-of-the art air conditioning and ventilation system to protect art objects in the art gallery. The rest of the house has no working heat or air-conditioning systems.
Today the Aiken-Rhett House stands alone as the most intact townhouse complex showcasing urban life in antebellum Charleston. The foundation has adopted a conservation approach to the interpretation of this important house and its outbuildings, which have survived virtually unaltered since 1858.
You will love exploring this house as it’s quite different than the other historic house museums found in Charleston.